behind the scenes

Murray Grigor, the series director, has generously shared some of the observations he recorded in his diary during production. Below are his “tales from the production troika.”

A Heady Start

moscow kremlin [Before leaving London for Russia, series director Murray Grigor suffered a mugging that left him looking quite battered.] So in Moscow a vision of the Devil met the Governor of the Kremlin to negotiate fees for filming the ancient churches there. He turned out to be a most compassionate man as he sympathized over my hideous appearance... Then wryly he added how it was so reassuring for him to know that such misfortunes happened in other cities than his own. The Governor handed us on to Nona Vladimirskaya, the enthusiastic director in charge of the Kremlin’s monuments. She gave us a most fulsome welcome. “Despite Russia’s dramatic history,” she told our little party, “the uniqueness of what our ancestors created has survived as a significant part of world culture.” That was doubly reassuring to hear. Despite my bruises, my spirit soared; for that was precisely why we had come to Russia. What a wonderful exhortation to inspire the filming of our series.


ferapontova church We had the privilege of being the first crew to film the newly restored frescoes of the church of Ferapontovo in Russia’s far north... Somehow this little church survived when so many others were destroyed by Stalin. Now, after nearly twenty years of restoration under the scholarly and religious eye of Marina Serebriakova, we were here to film her and these ethereal frescoes [painted in the summer of 1502 by Dionysius]. To complement the overlapping scenes of Mary’s life, of one divine episode merging into another, we had the Vologda choir sing excerpts from the Hymns to the Virgin, which are the main subject matter of the frescoes. The beauty of their singing caused tears to well up in the Librarian of Congress’s eyes. When all the filming was done, the choir regrouped and then sang in harmony to everyone’s complete amazement, “Way Down upon the Swanee River,” a most heart-warming gesture. What a wonderful end to a most moving day.

See the feature article about Ferapontova in the June/July 1998 issue of Russian Life.

Dawn Over Lake Onega

lake onega Sweeping over Lake Onega at dawn in a speedy Russian hydrofoil, we filmed its woody islands as they seemingly floated above the water. For over two weeks, the north of Russia had been drenched in continuous rain. Now we were blessed with a huge sun glinting over the lake, backlighting the wispy banks of mist. Islands of trees emerged and disappeared. Birds flew off as black rocks dematerialised into clouds. Here we would have all the imagery to recreate the dream of Peter the Great, who built St. Petersburg on such islands at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Later in St. Petersburg, around the Winter Palace, we would have clear blue skies and sunshine to film the classical statuary, which now emerge through the mists, to open the second program, “The Facade of Power.”

The Miracle of the Fish

olga sedakova No one has explored with greater sensitivity and imagination the renewal of the spiritual in Russian writing than the poet Olga Sedakova. Drawing on the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, and often using the vocabulary of the ancient language of Church Slavonic, her poems seek to reconnect an almost forgotten past to a future beyond the catastrophes of the present. I had been well prepared to meet this deeply religious woman, whose poems are read, they say, on a daily basis by the Pope. But when the door of her apartment swung back, there was our associate producer, Yelena Zagrevskaya, with a frozen haddock wrapped around her shin. Yelena had fallen on the ice outside our hotel and her savage cut had required many stitches in a hospital. The poet had reached into her fridge to soothe Yelena’s injury. The interview that followed went off swimmingly and Yelena’s leg healed soon after.

Surprise Encounter

mstislav rostropovich Waiting in the lobby of our St. Petersburg hotel, we saw a man struggle inside the half-functioning revolving entrance doors. Outside half the sidewalk was up for maintenance. Wooden boards crossed a series of dangerous open ditches. Glinting behind the glass doors in shards of light, the man entrapped seemed to be wrestling with a monstrous giant. Finally he emerged. It was the maestro Mstislav Rostropovich manhandling his cello case. What a way to meet and discuss our film. In the final episode of The Face of Russia, Rostropovich speaks so imaginatively about the soul of Russia embodied in the works of Modest Musorgsky, a composer who would have such a fundamental influence on the music of the twentieth century.

© 1998 WETA. All rights reserved.